The NFL draft approached with a warning shot across the league from the commissioner's office, which didn't need to name the Bengals as a primary target.
Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Tennessee Titans cornerback Pacman Jones for the entire 2007 season while also bumping Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry for eight games — in each case for recklessness off the field — thereby marking himself as the new sheriff in town.
Though collective bargaining arrangements and standard player contracts contain language to encourage good behavior, the commissioner's office often has been loath to thereby assert itself, so Goodell's sanctions are somewhat de facto applications of ex post facto prosecution. But no one's complaining, including the notoriously spineless NFL Players Association.
Along with the suspensions came word that teams known to harbor delinquents would be subject to punishment from the commissioner's office, a point of interest to the Bengals after their infamous year of player arrests. So along came the draft last weekend, with a warning to the Bengals: Tread carefully.
The Bengals ended up with Michigan cornerback Leon Hall as their first-round selection and the 18th overall choice. Maybe the Bengals could have looked at a prospect like Miami's Brandon Meriweather or Nevada-Las Vegas' Eric Wright, but each came to the draft with little character flags the team can't risk.
Hall is kind of a hard player to figure. He's said to play larger than his size (5-feet-11) and slower than his speed (40 yards in 4.39 seconds).
Despite his speed, Hall struggled in the college game against elite receivers like Ted Ginn Jr. and Dwayne Jarrett. His run support is well regarded, however.
The Bengals came through with one of the dullest drafts, which, as always, has a lot to do with staying out of the draft headlines by competing for the playoffs in December. The draft is designed for poor teams to indulge a moment or two of hope.
With only two picks out of the first 113, the Bengals stood to gain less from this draft than any other AFC North team, and they did. Their only other first-day selection, smallish Auburn running back Kenny Irons, provides a specialty accessory for the running game anchored by Rudi Johnson.
The Bengals didn't obviously improve themselves. They replaced the departed cornerback Tory James, who signed as a free agent with New England, and brought in a running back for the work Chris Perry has never been able to handle. Down the line a couple years, the Bengals might point to an awesome duo of young cornerbacks in Hall and last year's top pick, Jonathan Joseph. Beyond that, expectations are hard to create.
Indeed, it's hard to see the Bengals' draft as anything more than an opportunity to replace free agency losses, though with players who might have more upside. They lost safety Kevin Kaesviharn as a free agent to New Orleans and drafted two safeties — fourth-round pick Marvin White from Texas Christian and seventh-round pick Nedu Ndukwe from Notre Dame. They lost back-up quarterback Anthony Wright as a free agent to the New York Giants and drafted Nevada quarterback Jeff Rowe in the fifth round. They lost defensive tackle Shaun Smith as a free agent to Cleveland and drafted Oregon defensive tackle Matt Toeaina in the sixth round.
Most damaging, of course, is that the selection of Notre Dame offensive guard Dan Santucci in the sixth round can't possibly compensate for the free agency loss of Eric Steinbach to Cleveland. And that's not the extent of Cleveland's improvement during the offseason.
No NFL team made bigger strides on draft day than the Browns, who used the third overall pick on Wisconsin offensive left tackle Joe Thomas, then traded with Dallas to secure the No. 22 pick for this year's draft tear-jerker, Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn, then worked another trade with the Cowboys to pick 53rd for Wright.
The Browns already anticipated the return of tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. along with wide receiver Braylon Edwards. In free agency, they signed Steinbach and former Miami Dolphins center Seth McKinney, who missed all of 2006 with injury. And, when the Baltimore Ravens released running back Jamal Lewis one year into a three-year contract, obviously hoping to sign him cheaper as a free agent, the Browns jumped in with a deal that could pay up to $5 million in 2007.
Suddenly, the Browns have rebuilt the majority of their offensive line, brought back two talented receivers, added a top quarterback prospect and signed a running back who carried for 1,132 yards in 2006. All they've lost from a talent standpoint is their No. 1 pick in 2008.
Of course, that top pick in 2008 means virtually nothing right now to Browns General Manager Phil Savage and Head Coach Romeo Crennel, both of whom face slim prospects of being around for that draft if the team doesn't significantly improve next season. Just adding Steinbach, Thomas and Lewis makes the Browns much more formidable in the running game. But because Savage and Crennel need to win now, they're in quite a tough spot at quarterback.
Everybody wants to see Quinn play. But the Browns might be better served in the long run by making him hold a clipboard for a year while Derek Anderson or Charlie Frey play quarterback.
If you're Browns owner Randy Lerner, you might extend Savage and Crennel or give some kind of assurance that they have two more seasons. If the GM and coach are under the gun to win now, they could end up rushing Quinn into the lineup, hoping for the best and maybe stunting his development.
After losing all six of their games in the AFC North last year, three of those by 17 or more points, the Browns have a long way to go. But they apparently went a long way last weekend, and that's not good news for the Bengals.
If the Bengals basically treaded water last weekend in their own activity, they actually sank a little with Cleveland's progress.